Washington Post (pg. A25)  [Printer-friendly version]
October 10, 2003


By Brian Faler, Special to The Washington Post

A regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration, the agency charged with protecting the public from
hazards in the workplace, has accused the office of neglecting the
health of its own employees.

Adam Finkel, one of 10 regional administrators for the agency, said in
a complaint filed yesterday with the Office of Special Council that
the agency declined to test employees who may have been exposed to the
metal beryllium. The metal is used in industrial and consumer
applications -- from nuclear weapons to electronics production -- and
is believed to cause a potentially fatal lung ailment.

He said as many as 500 OSHA workers may have been exposed to the metal
-- by inhaling airborne particles, for example -- while inspecting
worksites. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
(PEER), an advocacy group, filed the complaint on his behalf yesterday
with the special counsel, an independent agency that investigates
whistleblower complaints.

The complaint asks the special council to order the Labor Department,
OSHA's parent agency, to investigate the issue. The special counsel
has 15 days to consider the request.

"It is both outrageous and ironic that the very professionals whose
job is to ensure safe workplaces themselves face needless occupational
risks due to bureaucratic indifference," said PEER executive director
Jeff Ruch. He said the tests in question would cost $150 per person.

In a written statement, OSHA denied that it is indifferent to its
inspectors' welfare and said it has a system for testing.

"OSHA places a very high value on ensuring the safety and health of
all workers, including its employees," the statement said. "OSHA has a
medical monitoring program that provides for agency-paid special
testing, such as beryllium, if there was a possibility that an
employee may have been exposed. Agency employees have been tested for
beryllium under that program."

Ruch called the statement a "non-denial denial," saying OSHA has only
examined a handful of its employees for beryllium and does not
routinely test specifically for exposure to the metal.

The complaint is based on air samples OSHA inspectors collected that
included what Finkel considered to be significant amounts of
beryllium. Finkel, an administrator for six Rocky Mountain states,
said as many as 500 inspectors nationwide may have been exposed. Ruch
said he did not know if any have become sick. But he said they have
not been warned of the potential dangers, and perhaps as many as half
of them have since retired.

OSHA has not denied the potential risks of beryllium exposure. "We
know there's an association between adverse health effects and
exposure to this metal," said OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, in a
statement last November, in which he asked the public for
recommendations on how best to address the issue.